Monday, April 18, 2016

All’s Fair in Books

I participated in another book fair Saturday, and as sometimes happens, the authors were more plentiful than the readers. One even told me that she can’t read anymore and doesn’t like recorded books, so one might wonder why she accompanied her friends to the event, but there really isn’t a simple answer to that, anymore than there is an answer to why sometimes book fairs are crowed with buyers and sometimes not. Publicity may have a lot to do with it, but just as likely it was the weather.

Here on the western frontier where we live, and even to the east, in the Shenandoah Valley where we assembled, we have been waiting and hoping for spring to discover us, and Saturday was it. We have had weeks of warm winter, when every tree and bulb wisely withheld new grow and simply stayed curled up knowing that it wasn’t over. In February winter decided it had been in elsewhere long enough, and came roaring back. By mid-March bulbs were pushing up, leaves were opening up, and on occasion we even had windows opening up. Then of course, the day after the magnolia blossomed, the temperature went from 50 to 5. Then it went up again. Then down again. Great for the maple syrup producers in the county . . . if it stayed that way. Instead we had weeks when the temperature dropped into the teens and never rose above the 20s. Again not unusual for living in the mountains, but somehow this year it seemed to just not stabilize. So Saturday, when the overnight was above freezing, and the daytime sun brought high 60s here and 70s in the Valley, perhaps that was all it took to send readers outside, with no thought of going to a big room full of writers and books and not much else.

Still, for those of us who write, which is a solitary and often lonely occupation (but none of us would rather do anything else), it was good to seclude ourselves with other writers, only occasionally interrupted by readers/buyers. Writers don’t have to explain to other writers what the writing process is all about, nor how seldom we think about sitting and talking about writing, instead of actually doing it. It is what we do: sit in a quiet place, hearing only the scratch of a pen or the clicking of a keyboard. It makes the kind of music we can hum, a tune we can whistle.

An interesting sidelight: I shared my table with a writer who also has an antiques business. To attract people to her books, she set up a kind of found art exhibit. Part of it was a portable typewriter, the kind writers of my generation often started with in college or perhaps earlier. I couldn’t help tuning in when a young person, perhaps still a teenager, asked my table mate what it was. She responded with a good description, and then offered the young one the opportunity to type something. Now I don’t know about you, but I began with a Royal portable that required real effort to move the keys. For that reason, when I began using computers, I often cracked and wrecked the fragile board under the keys. I mean, it took real strength to move typewriter keys enough to raise the type bar to press on the ribbon and the paper. I was eager to see how the young person would find this archaic tool. You know the answer, I’m sure. The first attempt barely moved the key or the type bar. Finally, after two or three tries, a letter actually rose up far enough and with sufficient force to press against the ribbon and paper and actually type a letter. Oh how things have changed.

Today I no longer punch keys on my computer as hard as I once did. Unless I’m angry, of course, or really inspired. Then I still will hit the keys hard and fast, but the manufacturers have learned about people like me, and have built electronic boards that must be extremely tough. Oh, I’ll knock off one of the pads that serve as keys (two like that on ths laptop), but since I’m a touch typist I really don’t need the letter to know what the key is. And I like to pound the keys! It give me a real feeling of controlled power to hit ‘em hard, and again and again, and feel the emotion of what I’m writing flow from brain to paper.

Now that spring has sprung, as it were, there are more things calling to me to come outside and play. A lot of work to be done repairing the winter’s work, still trees to finish cutting and splitting and stacking by the furnace. On the decks across the front of the house there are windfall leaves, flower pots in need of replanting, repairs and refinishing of the wooden deck boards. Really there is no end to what winter has left us to do, yet I have calls from the writing desk to answer, too. I have two lives, it seems.

The first is the writing life: seeing story ideas, getting something down on paper or in a computer file, exploring the ideas and developing them. Those things take time that doesn’t look like work. For some reason, some cultural artifact in my brain, sitting and thinking without even a pencil in my hand seems like not working. I know better. I know that writing is not an active occupation. Typing is. Hearing the click of keys on paper was always music to me. The dull thud or clicking of keypads doesn’t bring forth the same response. I know all of that, just as I know the physical act of writing is the easy part. The story evolves in that dark place in the brain. Events and images and personalities all leave residue behind that find their way into characters and events and thoughts that animate our characters and stories. All of that goes on inside, before the words breakout onto a screen or a piece of paper.

Most of my writing takes place in the folds and convolutions of my brain, deep in the dark. Sometimes, though, working at something physical, something that takes more muscle than brain, allows a light I hadn’t expected to flash a direction, a solution, a question to be answered, even the answer itself. Those are the creative moments I love the most. And they can happen anywhere.

I’ll be outside.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Story Time

I’m at that point in life where I think about what I will leave behind; my legacy, if you will. I’m not a president of anything, but still, there are those who will want to know more about me than they are even able to think about at this point. I have two great grandsons (and a third one on the way), and unlike my own childhood, there will be a great grandfather in their lives. What will they know about me, and the life that led to my participation in their lives, and the lives of their parents and grandparents? Perhaps they won’t care, but my own experience tells me that at some point they will have some questions, some interest in those who came before.

I never knew my grandfathers or great grandfathers. All I know about them is what little my parents passed on (which wasn’t really very much). For a long time I didn’t realize what a loss that was. A personal loss, to be sure, but it has left me with a short story where family is concerned. Not entirely, of course. There are legends in every family, funny or tragic, sometimes enlightening or inspiring, but that isn’t the same as "knowing." No smile to recall, no voice to remember, no third dimension by which to see them.

In her later years my mother, a forgotten poet and writer of children’s tales (which she never tried to publish), wrote a couple of short pieces (30 or so pages) describing her early years as an immigrant child and her growing up in a small southern town. Those were mostly the stories my sister and I had heard growing up, but some of it was new and all of it was a wonderful way to pass those stories on to our children and grandchildren and (in time) great grandchildren. A legacy.

What I’m writing about here is what each of us can do. We don’t have to be literary geniuses, or even moderately successful writers of fiction or essays. We all have stories that, perhaps unknowingly, formed our lives. It is something that needs to be made accessible to those who come after because without a history, no life is complete. And it isn’t difficult. All you really need is a pad of paper, a pen or pencil, or perhaps a small digital recorder (about $15 or $20 today) and the time to sit down and recall your own life, and the lives of those who came before. Maybe even stories of your own children that they may have forgotten but that, to you, were part of making them what they have become.

Santayana is usually credited with first stating the obvious (though there are about a dozen different versions of it): "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it." "Doomed" is perhaps not always the right word to use. Sometimes forgetting history can help one live a more balanced, successful life. Either way, history is history, and knowing it, understanding it, is an important part of living.

Write it down. Leave a gift for those who come after.

Monday, April 4, 2016


There is a small maple tree about 40 feet from my office window. When the cold weather comes, so do the doves. They perch on branches about twenty feet above the ground, sitting two-by-two as if huddling to keep warm. I enjoy watching them.

We also have a single male cardinal again this year. He lost his life-mate last winter, as I recall, and will probably not find (or seek) another. The state bird is a wonderful eye-catcher against the drab gray background of late winter.

We have other birds here year-round, and they are lovley to see in any weather, but it is the doves that seem to project warmth and love at a time of year when warmth is not projected across nature’s big screen. Watching doves warming themselves warms me, as well.

Living in a remote and semi-wild environment is a school of understanding. Life is going on all around us, whether we are watching, or not. In the bigger world, the one far beyond my window, there are people who would substitute hate for love; provide targets for others to focus on; avoid dealing with the real problems living on a small planet brings. I don’t know what the answer is, or even if there is an answer, but I know what I have learned, watching the doves.

I have learned that we are warmer, more comfortable, less likely to fall when we sit down together. We, all of us, perch precariously on whatever branch we choose for our resting place because there are no certainties. We grab on to life, grip hard, hold on tight regardless of wind or snow, rain or shine. We are at our best when we find our place in the sun.

This time of year I recall a poem I learned as a child. It is not the greatest, perhaps, not the most artful of poems, but now and then it speaks to me. It is "The Rainbow," by William Wordsworth. Do you know it?

"My heart leaps up when I behold
     A rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
     So it is now I’m a Man;
So be it when I grow old,
     Or let me die!
The Child is Father to the Man;
     And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety."

Say "hello" to Spring.